I Will Follow you to the Middle of Nowhere
The other films of Ava DuVernay
In the lead up the 2015 Academy Awards there was a lot controversy surrounding the apparent snub of Ava DuVernay for a Best Director nomination for her MLK biopic Selma. DuVernay would have been the first female African American director to be nominated, and had she won would have been the first black director ever to secure the Oscar. There have been only three black directors up for the award — John Singleton for Boyz in the Hood in ’91, Lee Daniels for Precious in 2009 and Steve Mcqueen for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. Her lead in Selma, David Oyelowo, was also arguably snubbed for his impressive take on King. DuVernay was initially reluctant to tackle a historical drama, a genre she found confining and creatively stunting. Until then, she had written and directed two small and beautifully executed independent films that established her as a credible talent, 2010’s I Will Follow and 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, with the latter earning her a Best Director trophy at Sundance. DuVernay, a film publicist turned director, sought to make films that depicted the ordinary lives of African Americans.
Her first, I Will Follow, takes us through the day in the life of Maye, a woman who is grieving and in the process of moving out of her recently deceased aunt’s home. Maye is played by Salli Richardson-Whitfield, a dead-ringer for a young Pam Grier. Throughout the course of the day Maye is visited by a string of people, each offering some form of consolation, assistance and challenge. Each visit and a series of flashbacks eventually coalesce to illustrate a full picture of her grief and her efforts to move ahead after time spent providing palliative care for her aunt. We learn about the tension between her and her aunt’s daughter, as well as her failed relationship which fell apart due to time spent away from her boyfriend.
Many moments in the film emphasize small conversations, such as Maye’s efforts to relate to her nephew with a debate about the famed Jay-Z/Nas feud (spoiler: she sides with Jay-Z), and a rooftop conversation with a cable-woman and cancer survivor about make up. The emphasis on minutiae is deliberate and in keeping with DuVernay’s mandate of portraying regular African American life. These moments still entertain, contribute to the overall ambiance of the film and serve the story. The climax is decidedly anti-climactic, to the films credit. Maye is visited at night by Troy, a tow truck operator played by Omari Hardwick, who she befriended while taking care of her aunt. After helping her pack the remainder of her aunt’s belongings they nearly become intimate, but he reveals he has a girlfriend and decides to honour his relationship. This is a welcome alternative from conventional, sexualized images of African Americans in film. They opt for a kiss on the forehead.
DuVernay elevates her art for her second effort Middle of Nowhere. This time the story is centered on a medical student coping with social and family pressure as she struggles to support her incarcerated husband, who is serving an eight year prison term. Ruby, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi in a great understated performance, routinely visits her husband Derek in prison, a tragic figure played by Omari Hardwick who returns for his second collaboration with DuVernay. Derek is pulled into territorial conflict in prison while anticipating the prospect of early release with good behaviour. Ruby is entangled in the details of his appeal and contends with his legal team for support, while fending off criticism from her family and fielding advice from her sister. Meanwhile Ruby’s bus driver (David Oyelowo) competes for her affection. Over the years, both Ruby and Derek serve up a morsel of betrayal to each other, less out of malice and selfishness as out of circumstance.
DuVernay would win Best Director at Sundance for Middle of Nowhere, making a simple premise seem almost ground-breaking. We’re accustomed to the confounding array of statistics conveying the incarceration of black males from the news media. The prison industrial complex affects millions of lives, and media and film portrayal of this epidemic still emphasizes the trifecta of guns, drugs and gangs. Middle of Nowhere humanizes the people directly and indirectly caught in this experience and examines its impact with a touch of visual lyricism. Some of the most affecting scenes are of a bus full of women on the way to the prison, ostensibly all to see their husbands and boyfriends. DuVernay lingers, sometimes in silence and other times in conversation between Ruby and another woman, where we’re privy to them sharing their respective hardships and hopes.
DuVernay deliberately avoids hyperbolizing black life and caricaturing her characters, remaining faithful to rendering an unbiased glimpse at their lived experiences. In both films the overall pacing is unhurried and the texture ambient, with the warm pulsing photography of greater Los Angeles embodying a character courtesy of virtuoso cinematographer Bradford Young. So far DuVernay’s relatively short career as a director has produced Selma, the Netflix documentary 13th on racial inequality and the prison system, and these two simple, beautiful films, all accented with a distinctive style — an honest and truthful take on the lives of Americans who happen to be black.